Pipeliners Podcast

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This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features the latest in a series of several episodes with Jay Almlie of the EERC and iPIPE consortium hosted by Russel Treat.

In this episode, you will learn about the challenges, successes, and failures Jay has experienced with iPIPE. You will also learn more about what iPIPE members and Jay have learned that they did not anticipate in the beginning of the partnership. Finally, you will learn how iPIPE is helping operators improve operation and safety and what makes iPIPE unique in the pipeline industry.

iPIPE — High Tide Floats All Boats: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms

  • Jay Almlie is a Principal Engineer at the EERC and a leader of the iPIPE consortium. Connect with Jay on LinkedIn.
    • EERC (Energy & Environmental Research Center) is a research, development, demonstration, and commercialization facility for energy and environment technologies development located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. EERC is a leading developer of cleaner, more efficient energy to power the world and environmental technologies to protect and clean our air, water, and soil.
    • iPIPE (the intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program) is an industry-led consortium whose focus is to contribute to the advancement of near-commercial, emerging technologies to prevent and detect gathering pipeline leaks as the industry advances toward the goal of zero incidents.
    • Find more information on iPIPE members (Gas, NGL, Water, Interstate Crude Oil, and more).
  • U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforces the federal securities laws, proposes securities rules, and regulates the securities industry, which is the nation’s stock and options exchanges, and other activities and organizations, including the electronic securities markets in the United States
  • Eagle Ford is a sedimentary rock formation deposited during the Cenomanian and Turonian ages of the Late Cretaceous over much of the modern-day state of Texas.
  • GIS (Geographic Information System) is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic data.
  • Technology Readiness Level (TRL) is a method for estimating the maturity of technologies during the acquisition phase of a program.
  • Defense in Depth (DID) is a military concept used by the U.S. Department of Defense that captures the ability to support defense positions that absorb and progressively weaken an attack. The application to the pipeline industry is performing risk assessments to set up a strong defense for safety purposes.

iPIPE — High Tide Floats All Boats: Full Episode Transcript

Russel Treat:  Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 117, sponsored by iPIPE, an industry-led consortium advancing leak detection and leak prevention technologies to eliminate spills as pipeliners move toward zero incidents. To learn more about iPIPE or to become an iPIPE partner, please visit ipipepartnership.com.


Announcer:  The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations.

Now your host, Russel Treat.

Russel:  Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Mireya Vargas with Saulsbury Industries. To learn how you can win this signature prize pack, stick around till the end of the episode.

This week, we have Jay Almlie returning back. We’re going to be talking about iPIPE and how a high tide floats all the boats. Jay, welcome back to the Pipeliners Podcast.

Jay Almlie:  Thanks, Russel. Good to be back.

Russel:  We’re now at episode five of this six-part series on iPIPE. We’ve had the opportunity to talk about what iPIPE is, and to talk to some participants from an operator perspective, and some participants from a vendor perspective. We’re circling back around now. I wanted to talk about…you characterize this as a high tide floats all boats. I think that’s really very apropos.

I want to talk about, really, where do you think you are with iPIPE? Talk a little bit about, what are some of the challenges, and successes, and failures? That’s a tee up. I guess, the first question is, from this whole consortium…probably you ought to do a quick review of what iPIPE is so that the listeners that haven’t been listening to other pieces can get caught up.

Jay:  Sure. I’ve got it. I think I’ve got the elevator speech down. Let’s try it. Let’s see how it goes.

Russel:  We’ll give you a score after you’re done. How’s that? [laughs]

Jay:  Super. Your listeners can call in and score too. [laughs] iPIPE was a novel creation of industry. It is an industry conceived program. Certain leaders within the pipeline operations industry, that is pipeline operators themselves, said once upon a time, “We don’t have enough tools to do the job the way we want to do it.”

“We are missing some open slots in our tool belt, we want to put tools in those open slots. We have this idea for a program, where we’ll reach over the horizon to help technology providers create new technologies, develop those new technologies, that we can use to fill those open slots in our tool belt.”

It’s a unique program, in where pipeline operators are joining their resources, that’s cash resources, and that’s in-kind contributions, and that’s engagement with the technology providers. It’s offering volunteer pipelines, all in an effort to help foster the development of brand new tools, emerging tools for two things, pipeline leak prevention, and pipeline leak detection, in that order.

We say it specifically for that reason because obviously every pipeline operator would rather avoid leaks than detect them. If they do happen, they want to detect them. We’re doing this in three ways. I covered this in a previous episode, but not everyone caught it. Let me just quickly recap.

We offer them some cash award, for those selected as a part of this iPIPE technology selection process. It’s not a sale. We offer them some cash award to help them develop that product, but they’ve got to bring skin to the game too. Two, we offer them live operating pipelines volunteered from our members so that they can develop these technologies in a realistic setting.

Real live operating pipelines. What better sandbox to play in than the real world. Three, we give them real-time feedback quietly within our group, within iPIPE, to help them hone their product, or technology, or whatever, to something that could become commercialized, something that the members would actually buy at the end.

We’ll tell them we’d like this, we don’t like that. We want more of this, we want less of that. In a nutshell, that was the start of iPIPE. If you’ll allow me, just 30 more seconds in this elevator speech. I’ll say that it’s been interesting to watch, as iPIPE started as a technology development program, purely about developing emerging technologies.

The members of iPIPE realized very quickly, “Hey, we’re sharing in new ways behind the scenes, in this closed group of paid members. All of us are pipeline operators. We’re sharing. We aren’t able to in any other forum. We’re sharing successes and failures in dealing with the challenges we have.

“We’re prioritizing our challenges by discussing them with other operators. We’re sharing lessons learned, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked.” What started as a technology development program has now become two thrusts. We’re still with technology development. That makes us very unique. We’re also about sharing lessons learned in a quiet room among operators who really know their business.

Russel:  Certainly, one of the things I think that’s thematic in all the conversations I’ve had as I’ve had the opportunity to talk to the various participants is this idea of collaboration. Really working on the solution comprehensively. Not just in terms of technically, “Will it work?” but how do I operationalize this thing? How do I get it to the people that are actually going to be using it?

How do I answer all those nitty-gritty I’m out here in the field with this technology what am I supposed to do now kind of questions? That’s one of the things that makes iPIPE really unique and different.

Jay:  Thank you for recognizing that and for saying that. It is fascinating. Every one of us in this industry, you included, Russel, are all techies at heart. We love our shiny objects. We love new technology. It’s fun, but operationalizing that new technology presents another challenge. How do you actually flow that into your workflow, your work patterns, daily?

One of the reasons that we like to discuss this among operators is for that so that we can understand why this worked and this didn’t work. Why did it work? Why didn’t it work? “Well, we had troubles with the operations of it. We had troubles getting our field crews to adopt it. That’s the kind of deep learning that’s happening real-time within our membership.

Russel:  One of the questions I wanted to ask you, Jay, as the leader of the program, what would you say that you’re finding or learning that was unanticipated when you started on this endeavor?

Jay:  Let me distract from your real question a little bit and, instead, defer it to the members. What are the members learning that they didn’t anticipate from the beginning? Remember. It’s the members’ program. They asked the EERC to run for them, to manage it for them, because we’re adept at applied research here. We have this trusted relationship with them, but it’s their program.

What they’ve said repeatedly, something that surprised them was this notion of sharing. They simply don’t have another forum for it. I’ll give you a specific example. This idea came about, about a year ago. Once we had started iPIPE, they recognized what deep sharing was going on within our meetings. They said, “Hey, we ought to have more of these.” Now think about that.

How many of us want more meetings? To say that was really a market change. We just came off last week our first members’ forum meeting, which was designed specifically with that goal in mind — sharing successes and failures. Even at this meeting, which the members wanted, they came away generally surprised. That’s feedback I got immediately after last week’s meeting.

They came away surprised at just how much everyone shared in the room and how valuable that was. Learning from each other so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, each one of us. It’s all the members sharing failures and successes so that we only have to invent the wheel once. That’s been the biggest surprise of members.

If I’m sticking strictly to your question of what’s the biggest surprise to me, it’s that same thing. It’s how well they’ve communicated and how easy it’s been for me to foster that kind of environment with members who are so willing to share.

Russel:  That’s awesome. It also says a lot about our industry in terms of the quality of the people and, I want to say, how seriously that they take their public trust in terms of operating these facilities and doing it with excellence. They do compete in some domains, but none of us are competing to be the safest. We all want to be the safest.

Jay:  Right, because the least of us is the one that impacts everyone, and so we all want the high tide to float all boats.

Russel:  So we’ve already talked about this a little bit, but I wanted to unpack this a little bit more. How do you think that iPIPE is helping the operator members improve operations and safety beyond just the technical things that you’re looking at in terms of tools?

Jay:  Well, let’s go back to this notion of sharing and unpack that a little bit. I’m already getting feedback from last week that members heard from other members, during several one hour deep dive presentations, we had members make last week. “Hey, I’m interested in what that company did. Can you get me a contact there?”

I’d become like an old fashioned operator. I start patching through cables, making one talk to the other. And it’s through that mechanism that what one operator used to do, just two short years ago the mantra was, “Were all doing it on our own.” Now, there’s a growing recognition among industry that, “Hey, alone isn’t working.”

These are public challenges. We’re in a publicly critical space. We need to address this as a unified front. So how to do that? Sharing in these meetings, sharing outside these meetings. Because of things they learned in these meetings, they’re talking to each other now in ways they never talked to each other before.

It was always a go it alone because SEC confines us to this space, and we can’t share with our neighbor. But it’s what you just said, Russel. Safety is not a competitive issue. So they all want to share lessons learned in that space, and it’s happening. It’s happening real-time this week.

Russel:  That’s awesome. So we had talked in several other conversations about how the regulators, and how they interact with the operators. We had this conversation. I don’t know if you recall it, but we had talked a little bit about people looking for a silver bullet that solves all problems versus having an understanding about what it really takes to make a toolset successful.

How have some of the others that they have eyes into what you’re doing, some of the other stakeholders, how are they seeing what’s going on?

Jay:  Well, I think positively, the feedback I’m getting is it seen as a very positive thing. North Dakota, as you know, and as we covered on a previous episode, North Dakota’s heavily involved at the state level. That doesn’t mean they get deciding. They don’t get a decision seat, but they get a supportive cheerleading seat, because when they see that this high tide floats all boats, it makes their job as regulators easier.

So Texas is also asking what role they can play, and I think that’s an interesting, emerging, developing conversation right now. But Texas has huge business in the Eagle Ford in the Permian, and they’ve got a new play that they’re just discovering now. Frankly, Texas regulators want to get ahead of this.

So how do they do that? They’re trying to leverage efforts such as iPIPE to help them get ahead of these issues. So more specifically to your question, how can they derive value from this? Well, I think by encouraging the fleet owners, the pipeline owners in their state to think about partnering with others in matters such as iPIPE, such as the matter we’ve kind of formed, molded here.

They will be able to help them. Their regulators do their job better because, frankly, at higher tide, you don’t have to worry about boats running aground. That’s, basically, the general notion.

Russel:  Right.

Jay:  They’re worried that as they explode in infrastructure in Texas, with this coming play, they’re going to have some boats running aground, if they don’t get ahead of it. One way

To get ahead of it is to collaborate, to not compete in the safety space but collaborate.

Russel:  Well, I think there’s some other industry models for this too, and notably you can think about aircraft. I mean nobody would think for a minute that aircraft would compete on safety because if there’s a problem, you don’t think about, well, it’s because of the airline. You think it’s because the airplane tends to be the situation right.

So it is the kind of thing that does impact everyone for sure.

Jay:  Right. So similarly, within the pipeline industry, there’s a growing recognition, and I mean that it’s happening in real-time. I said it two years ago you wouldn’t have found this mentality, but this year, you find this mentality in oil and gas, not just pipeline sector but across oil gas.

You find a more open position from the largest operators to collaborating, because this isn’t a competitive space. They’re fighting a flawed narrative that is against oil and gas in general and against pipelines specifically. And they need to collaborate to put science to competing, to opposing that flawed narrative.

Russel:  Right, yeah. I’ve done this. I’ve done a number of podcasts on that subject and the flawed narrative, and not only gas, and there’s a lot of good content out there, but it certainly continues to become a conversation that we’re all dealing with, I’ll just say it that way.

Jay:  Right. I’m going to try and maybe flush out some of the answers that I just gave you. You asked, basically, what is it that they’re sharing in the background? How is that helping them create this high tide to float all boats? I’ll give you some examples from last week’s discussion. One pipeline operator said that they’re doing extensive work with drones. Another pipeline operator wasn’t, and they wanted to learn more about that.

The first pipeline operator said they’d be happy to share, again, because this is not a competitive space. They’re not making money off of drones, they’re making money off of safe delivery of product via the pipelines. So they’re willing to share. That’s happening right now. Another company said that they’re dealing in augmented reality, sticking pipelines on an iPad, and then you flash your iPad around.

Sorry. That’s probably too brand specific. Let’s say a tablet, flashing a tablet around, and they can see where the pipelines are underground, because they’re merging that GIS data set with augmented reality, and showing it in an easy format for troops on the ground to see. Well, obviously other pipeline operators were fascinated by that, and there’s a sharing going on.

So not only are they sharing, but they’re sort of, in a way, eliminating pursuits that we have to follow in iPIPE. If one company is doing that and willing to share the results, maybe, that’s not an investment we need to make within iPIPE. Maybe we can go after something else that others aren’t chasing. Therefore, we’re all magnifying the results of the technology development aspects of iPIPE.

Russel:  That’s one of the things that you guys are doing with iPIPE that’s unique is what the EERC adds because of your background in looking at how to apply technology to problems and doing that in a planned way.

One of the comments that came back, in some of the other conversations that I had, was the need to slow down and listen and to not just accept an initial good result as a good result and run but to really grind out and understand the details about how something’s working. Being a guy who’s commercialized technology, that’s really not generally understood by people as to what that takes.

Jay:  Let me say it from this perspective. Our members have a bunch of smart people on staff, but our members, members of iPIPE, their day job is producing and transporting oil to market. That’s their day job. Their day job isn’t to dwell in full factorial experimental design, for example.

We’re all bubba geeks. We all understand that to some degree, but the true researchers, applied researchers, know that you’ve got to put intense focus on that. Frankly, our members don’t have the time. They have a day job. They don’t have the time to really apply full thought to that.

They’re hiring the EERC to bring that aspect of what we do very well here at the EERC to bear on their behalf. We dip in. We help our selected technologies not only implement their emerging designs on real pipelines but really help them define, if not a full factorial experimental design, at least something approaching that where we’re exploring every independent variable within that design.

We can find out what’s working, what isn’t working, and then do a thorough job of assessing what did work and what didn’t work and apply some statistics to that. That becomes our day job.

By doing that we can provide this hopefully objective analysis at the end that both pipeline operator and technology developer can stand behind and say, “Yeah, an independent observer saw this. Here’s what we do well and here’s what needs improvement before commercialization.” Hopefully that’s a valuable tool for this program.

Russel:  I think it’s an extremely valuable tool myself and you also use the term several times there, applied research. To me, the word “applied,” it actually carries a whole lot of meaning in this conversation because doing pure research is something quite different than applied research.

Jay:  Agreed. There’s a lot of good, smart people out there, smart researchers who are very good at laboratory research and taking an idea and running it through a full factorial experimental design in the lab.

It’s very different actually putting it in the field. That becomes our specialty here at EERC is putting things into action. What does it look like applied to now, not just in the lab but actually in the real setting?

It’s kind of funny because what we frequently encounter, even among our members, is they’ll have an idea of how they want to pursue the development work and that includes an experimental design, but they don’t always recognize how difficult that is to achieve in the field.

It’s not a laboratory setting. They lose a lot of control. Our job becomes helping them work with their own people in the field to get that applied level of research done. How can it actually be accomplished in the field?

How do we get your boots on the ground to buy into this enough so that we have some control over the experiment? It’s not going to look like a lab, I promise, but this is a more realistic outcome than for promising technologies that may have looked like gold and lab. Now, we’re going to see if they actually work in the field.

Russel:  You get in the field, there’s a lot more factors and constraints to consider and there’s a lot less ability to control the factors and constraints, that’s for sure.

Jay:  Absolutely. It’s whether, it’s realistic operating conditions like a pump turning on and off that you didn’t expect, it’s a failure in your line that you didn’t expect, it’s resistance from personalities that you didn’t expect.

Russel:  It’s Internet connectivity, it’s people communications, it’s all those things.

Jay:  You got it. That’s the realism. That’s the applied part.

Russel:  Again, I think that’s one of the things that really makes iPIPE unique, that reality of taking something that’s demonstrated good promise. Really, I guess for the most part you guys are looking at things that have already proven their ability to do something. They just may not have proven how to do it in the field, or they may not have proven how to do it in pipelining.

Jay:  Correct. We spent a lot of time discussing this very question last week during our first member forum meeting. The question became, “What is our mission? What are we doing differently? How do we distinguish ourselves from other very capable groups doing great work? How do we distinguish ourselves from that? Why do we exist?”

The answer kept coming back to this very notion that you’ve been promoting, Russel. That is, “Applied, applied, applied.” This isn’t Jay Almlie saying this. This is our members saying, “There isn’t another group doing this level of applied research in this realistic setting.” That’s one way we’re differentiating ourselves.

Russel:  That’s how you lift all the boats. You actually get it out there and make it work.

Jay:  Make it about doing something rather than studying something.

Russel:  Getting to an outcome.

Jay:  Right.

Russel:  Getting to an outcome.

Jay:  Don’t get me wrong. All of those parts are important. That fundamental research, the studies, are important. What we thought was missing was this gap that we’re trying to fill of really making boots hit the ground. How do you actually apply that in the field bringing it right up to TRL, Technology Readiness Level, nine, where it’s truly commercially ready.

That’s the gap we’re trying to fill here. We’re complementary. We’re complementing other programs that help technologies get to that point. We’re just taking it that last step or two.

Russel:  Right. No, that’s absolutely right. I think about this. I love analogies because they make things like this a little bit easier to understand. If you think of pure research, and if you put it into a football context, pure research would be trying to figure out a game plan or trying to figure out a new way to run a play or something like that. It’s coaches in a room, and it’s all theoretical.

Then you take it out to the practice field. You start practicing it. You don’t really know until you get to game day. The beautiful thing about football is at the end of every game you get a score. You know how you did. You have all these statistics and numbers that you can analyze that tell you whether or not something was working.

Then there’s one score that tells you whether it worked really. That’s did you win or not? It’s similar in this context. There’s really one score that matters. It’s the triple zero. It’s the zero incident score. That’s the only real score that matters at the end of the day for this kind of work.

Jay:  That’s right. I love that analogy. Can I borrow that? Are you going to charge me for that?

Russel:  [laughs] No, no, no, no.

Jay:  I’d like to use that.

Russel:  You don’t even need to attribute that because I just made that up on the fly.

Jay:  [laughs] I met some really smart coaches who put a week into their game plan going into the game, so they got a direction. That’s really important. That might be the fundamental research part. Then in the first quarter, your game plan sometimes falls apart because your opponent did something you didn’t expect. That’s the applied part. We’re adapting to what wasn’t expected in the field.

Russel:  Well, I’m obviously a big football fan. You can tell that from this conversation.


Russel:  One of the things I always say about it is that you really understand how good the coaching is by how the team plays in the third quarter. Who makes the best coaching adjustments?

Jay:  Almost every game of football you’ll see a change at halftime. It’s almost like the second half is the only part that matters. It’s how that other coach adapts to the other coach.

Russel:  That’s right. That’s where you see how good the coaching is. Exactly right. Exactly right.

Jay:  In our business, it’s, “Who adapts best on the field? Which technologies adapt best to field conditions?” That’s the ones that succeed. Again, I think we covered this earlier during an earlier episode. We’re really proud to have a couple of technologies now. In fact, you just hosted them on your last episode, a couple of technologies that have really exceeded expectations on the field. They adapted well to the second half.

Russel:  I would say I got pretty geeked out talking to [laughs] those guys in that episode…

Jay:  [laughs] I heard.

Russel:  …because they’re doing some really neat stuff.

Jay:  [laughs] I heard. It was a good interview and well managed. Having two different players there, that’s a difficult management job.

Russel:  Their technologies are very different in terms of what they’re actually doing. What was interesting is thematically they were saying the same things about the process. Given what their technologies are, the nature of how they’re applied, and the groups they’re working with within the operating companies and all that being very different.

In a lot of ways they had very similar experiences about where the values were and where the challenges were.

Jay:  Right. I heard that come out in conversation. Is it presumptuous if I jump in and make a point, springboarding off of one of your earlier points, Russel?

Russel:  Sure. Please.

Jay:  One of your earlier points was basically, how do we take this? How do we avoid that silver bullet mentality, which is very, very common and unfortunately very, very flawed? There is no silver bullet. There’s a new vernacular being learned in this arena. It is very similar to a Department of Defense vernacular. It is defense in depth.

There isn’t one silver bullet that does it all. You need to apply a varying number of levels of defense to varying situations based on risk profile.

If you have a risky segment of pipeline for any number of reasons — it could be due to seismic activity, landslides, roughness of terrain, or freezing conditions, whatever it is that’s impacting risk — you need to apply more layers of defense, more depth of defense, to those riskier segments’ pipeline. That language is really catching wind within this community.

Back your point about your last guests on the last episode, they’re two very different technologies not competing at all. There are two different layers of defense.

Russel:  When you start talking about leak prevention and leak detection, it’s a program thing. It’s not a silver bullet thing. I’ve got to come up with a program. Let’s go back to the football analogy. That seemed to be [laughs] working for us.

Jay:  Let’s go. [laughs]

Russel:  You can have the best quarterback in the world. If you don’t have an offensive line, you’re not going to do very good. In fact, my mother used to say about Don Meredith, who was the first quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, “He’d be the best quarterback in the NFL if he knew how to throw from his back.”

Jay:  [laughs] Exactly. I like defense in football. I played defense, so let’s shift to that side of the line. You’ve got to have a really strong upfront three, followed by a really strong core of four linebackers, followed by a really good secondary to have a really solid defense. That’s the game we’re playing here. We want all three of those — frontline, linebackers, deep backs.

Russel:  It’s a program. Then how you play depends on what the situation is — what the game plan is, what the weather is, who you’re playing, what their strengths and weaknesses are. The analogy here is that this is a program kind of thing. What iPIPE is trying to do is not just look at the tool but figure out how it fits in the program.

Jay:  Right. I promise your listeners you and I know more than just football. [laughs] We were just trying to make good analogies. For those of you who don’t love football, we’ll find another analogy here shortly.

Russel:  [laughs] I was thinking, “What? You don’t love football?” I went down a whole different path on that.

Jay:  [laughs]

Russel:  Anyways, that’s probably a good point to wrap up this episode. For those of you that have listened to this, we’ve got one more. It’s really one of the episodes I’d be most interested in talking to Jay about. That is, what future technology is out there? What promises is iPIPE chasing? Come back and listen again. We’ll talk about that subject with Jay.

Jay, thanks for joining us as always.

Jay:  Thanks, Russel. Looking forward to the next time.

Russel:  I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Jay Almlie. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing. If you would like to support the podcast, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast, Google Play, or whatever smart device you happen to use to listen.

You can find instructions at pipelinerspodcast.com.

[background music]

Russel:  If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know either on the contact us page at pipelinerspodcast.com, or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.

Transcription by CastingWords

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